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The Public Health Crisis of Addiction: Surgeon General’s Historic Step Forward

Last Updated on February 5, 2021 by Inspire Malibu

For the past 65 years, the American court and prison system is where the majority of people struggling with substance abuse and addiction end up.

Of the nation’s 2.3 million prison inmates, more than half – 65 percent or 1.5 million – meet the medical criteria for substance use disorder and addiction, reports the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.

Another 485,000 of those prisoners were either under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of their offense, incarcerated for a drug related offense or apprehended during a crime to obtain illegal drugs.

Change How We View Addiction - Surgeon General

It’s time to change how we view addiction,” said Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in a statement, coming on the heels of his historic and first of its kind report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health.

Murthy continued to say that addiction should be treated “Not as a moral failing, but as a chronic illness that must be treated with skill, urgency and compassion. The way we address this crisis is a test for America.”

U.S. Addiction Statistics According to the Surgeon General

The Surgeon General’s report, released in November, also provided updated statistics on the country’s battle substance abuse and addiction:

  • 48 million Americans used or abused illegal or prescription drugs
  • 28 million drove will under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • 21 million people in the country suffer from full blown addiction and yet only 10 percent or fewer receive appropriate treatment
  • 66 million people reported binge drinking, consuming 5 or more drinks in one sitting for men, 4 for women
  • Nearly 16 million people need treatment for alcoholism, while almost 8 million needed it for drug addiction

Addiction Statistics in the United States Infographic

What Does the Future Hold for Addiction Treatment?

What’s unclear is whether or not Murthy’s groundbreaking shift in the government’s approach to substance abuse and addiction treatment will have any impact on policy. For his part, President Obama has publicly called addiction a disease and, to date, provided over 1,000 inmates commutations on their sentences.

President-elect Trump has offered very little in the way of addressing the issue of addiction, most notably the opioid crisis sweeping the nation. On a campaign stop in New Hampshire, a state devastated by heroin and prescription painkiller abuse, Trump said, “If I win, if I get elected president, I’m going to solve that problem,” but proffered no other details. Since then, the president-elect has not spoken about the issue.

In the report, the Surgeon General noted that addiction and substance abuse disorder costs the nation $420 billion annually in healthcare costs, loss of productivity, and the expense of keeping people in jail.

Similarly, the report noted that for $1 put toward practical treatment options saves $4 in healthcare and $7 in criminal justice costs.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Mona Lynch, a psychologist and criminologist at the University of California Irvine stated, “We need to have the investment [be] in public health and treatment programs,” and added that addiction “is not one strike and you’re out. There are going to be failures. There are going to be setbacks. It’s a relatively arduous process to try and address addiction.”

Many addiction recovery experts have expressed worry over the incoming administration’s “law and order” position on most issues. Indeed the yet-to-be confirmed appointment of Senator Jeff sessions as Attorney General does not bode well. In a new release after the passage of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, Sessions might’ve signaled his stance on the matter.

“This abandonment of the tough-on-crime policies that led to drastic reductions in drugs and crime beginning in the 1980s is directly contributing to the rise in drug use, overdose deaths and violent crimes in major cities.”

What Senator Sessions fails to see, it would appear, is the unprecedented growth in the U.S. prison industrial complex amid the outdated “tough-on-crime” policies of the 1980s. He also clearly misunderstands the very nature of the addiction epidemic and its ties to the overprescribing of prescription painkillers.

For many, the hope of the Surgeon’s General’s report comes a with a healthy dose of uncertainty regarding the future administration’s, even though it’s been reported Freddy Trump, President-Elect Trump’s older, brother died at 43, as a result of alcoholism.


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